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Morning Report: Fastballs and Strikeout Rates – Something to Watch Going Forward

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The Pirates’ obsession in recent years with having their pitchers throw mostly fastballs has been well documented.  The sharply increased success of Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton as soon as they left the team and sharply reduced their fastball use certainly drew some attention.  But that’s all clearly changing.

According to FanGraphs, the Pirates led the majors by a comfortable margin in fastball usage in 2017 (62.8%) and 2018 (62.6%).  That came in the face of a MLB-wide trend where fastball usage dropped from about 58% in 2016 to about 55% in 2018.  So far this year, through eight games, the Pirates are 15th at 54.1%.

The Pirates’ purpose, of course, was to eschew strikeouts for groundballs.  Whether or not it resulted from their reliance on fastballs, they ranked 13th in the NL in strikeouts per nine innings, at 7.9, in 2017, and 10th in 2018 at 8.6.  So far this year they’re fourth, at 9.5.  (Admittedly, some of that may have to do with playing six of their eight games against the Reds.)

The reliance on fastballs certainly extended to the Pirates’ farm system, although in this case I can offer only anecdotal evidence.  I’ve seen a lot of minor league games and the established pattern, at least up through AA, was for Pirates’ starters to use fastballs exclusively, or nearly so, the first time through the lineup, if not longer.  Many times, I’d see a pitcher throw 10-15 straight pitches with no more than one mph or so variance in velocity.  Ray “Work Fast and Change Speeds” Miller would have been appalled.

It’s hard to link this directly to fastball usage, but strikeouts haven’t been a big part of the arsenal of the team’s minor league staffs in recent years.  To take 2018 as an example, here’s the league rank of each affiliate in K/9

Indianapolis:  10 of 14
Altoona:  12 of 12
Bradenton:  12 of 12
West Virginia Power:  12 of 14
West Virginia Black Bears:  12 of 14
Bristol Pirates:  7 of 10
GCL Pirates:  16 of 18
DSL Pirates1:  37 of 44
DSL Pirates2:  3 of 44

Given the changes at the major league level, you have to think that there will be some in the farm system, too, and there’ve been some possible early signs of that happening.  It’s again hard to link this directly to fastball usage, but some starters with low K rates in the past have had interesting first starts.  On Sunday, for instance, Eduardo Vera, who had a K/9 last year of just 5.7, fanned six in six innings for Indianapolis.  Max Kranick, whose K/9 last year was a healthy 8.9, fanned seven in just four innings in his debut for Bradenton.  Earlier, Alex McRae, who had an 8.0 K/9 last year, fanned seven in four and two-thirds.  James Marvel fanned just 6.6 per nine last year, but struck out nine in just six innings in his first start.

Then again, maybe nothing is changing.  Team-wide results are very different from what some of the individual starters did.  Altoona, Bradenton and Greensboro all rank last in their leagues in K/9.  Indianapolis is fourth.

Of course, these are all very small sample sizes.  It’s something that bears watching over the course of the season.

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pittsburgh Pirates lost 10-0 to the Chicago Cubs on Monday afternoon. Jordan Lyles will make his second start of the season tomorrow after an off day today. He threw five shutout innings in his season debut. The Cubs will counter with Yu Darvish, who has an 8.10 ERA and a 2.70 WHIP in 6.2 innings over two starts.

The minor league schedule includes the season debut of Braeden Ogle, who was supposed to pitch on Monday, but his start was rained out. Greensboro has a doubleheader today. James Marvel gets his second start, coming off of six shutout innings on one hit, no walks and nine strikeouts. Indianapolis doesn’t have a starter listed, but it should be Rookie Davis, who still needs to be added to the active roster.

The full 2019 Pirates Prospects Prospect Guide is now available, up to date as of April 3rd, with every player in the minor league system. Includes full reports on the top 50 prospects, reports on over 150 other players, as well as looks back at the recent drafts and international signing classes.

MLB: Pittsburgh (5-4) @ Cubs (3-7) 8:05 PM 4/10
Probable starter: Jordan Lyles (0.00 ERA, 2:3 SO/BB, 5.0 IP)

AAA: Indianapolis (1-3) @ Toledo (3-1) 6:35 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: TBD (NR)

AA: Altoona (5-0) @ Erie (2-2) 6:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: James Marvel (0.00 ERA, 9:0 SO/BB, 6.0 IP)

High-A: Bradenton (4-1) @ Charlotte (2-3) 6:30 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Domingo Robles (0.00 ERA, 1:0 SO/BB, 6.0 IP)

Low-A: Greensboro (3-1) vs Hickory (3-1) 5:30 PM DH (season preview)
Probable starter: Braeden Ogle (NR) and TBD

HIGHLIGHTS

From Altoona’s game on Sunday, here’s Logan Hill with the go ahead RBI

Wilbur Miller
Wilbur Miller
Having followed the Pirates fanatically since 1965, Wilbur Miller is one of the fast-dwindling number of fans who’ve actually seen good Pirate teams. He’s even seen Hall-of-Fame Pirates who didn’t get traded mid-career, if you can imagine such a thing. His first in-person game was a 5-4, 11-inning win at Forbes Field over Milwaukee (no, not that one). He’s been writing about the Pirates at various locations online for over 20 years. It has its frustrations, but it’s certainly more cathartic than writing legal stuff. Wilbur is retired and now lives in Bradenton with his wife and three temperamental cats.

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